Written by Gareth Sapstead MSc CSCS
MYOBAND Fitness Director
Phases of concentrated bulking and cutting are essential if you’re a physique competitor. During the “off season” it’s okay if you gain an extra layer (or two) of fluff as your abs slowly begin to disappear. But, for most of us that want to look great naked and maintain a level of leanness year-round, a full blown dirty bulk isn’t an option.
In this 4-part article series I make mass building seem simple. Because it should be. I’ll be sharing with you proven nutrition and training strategies to ensure you gain muscle without the fat. Today in Part-1 you’ll learn why it’s important to know your calories, and how much muscle you should really be expecting from a lean mass gaining phase.
Calories are King
In order to optimally gain muscle then you need to be in a calorie surplus. Total calorie intake is the most important factor that determines muscle and strength gain, with your ratio of macronutrients (protein, fats, carbs) coming only second to that.
There’s no arguing that your body needs to be supplied with extra calories and nutrients in order to fuel its repair and growth from mass building workouts. Unfortunately, “growth” can quite often mean a growth in size and number of your fat cells, too. So while having a dose of extra calories each day will fuel your mass gains, it’s likely some of these extra calories will spill over resulting in unwanted fat gain as well.
Bulk hard, but not too hard!
The key to gaining muscle mass without too much fat is finding the right balance. Essentially, having just the right surplus to fuel muscle growth and recovery, but not so much that you spill over by a large amount.
The bad news is there’s no magic formula that works for everyone (despite what you might read elsewhere). The good news is that as far as calories go it’s actually really simple. All you need to do is know your current “maintenance” calories and start by adding another 10% on top of that. Then, commit to hitting those calories daily for at least a few months. Voila - Mass gain made simple! This is easier said than done though, of course.
Know your maintenance calories
Your maintenance calories are the calories that allow your weight to remain stable for an extended period of time. If your weight has remained the same for the past month then by definition you must have been eating the same amount of calories as you’ve been burning for the past month.
If your weight hasn’t remained the same, or you’ve never tracked a calorie in your life then now’s the time to start. Mobile apps like MyFitnessPal make calorie and macronutrient tracking very easy. Whatever you monitor you can manage, and not tracking your calorie intake during a mass gaining phase is a bit like paying your bills without monitoring your bank account.
Once you know how many calories you need to keep your weight about the same (some trial and error will likely be required) then you’ll know exactly how many calories you need to be adding daily to build muscle without the unwanted fat. 10% is a good start, but you can add more or less calories depending on how your body responds.
Quality calories mean quality gains
Your 10% extra calories should not be coming from pizzas and pastries. Instead they should be coming from nutrient dense foods with the right macronutrients. This will mean your body can make the most of the extra 10% it’s been gifted.
One of the easiest ways to add quality calories is through a high quality mass gainer. Adding a mass gainer shake on top of your maintenance calories each day requires little time and effort. You would adjust the serving size of your mass gainer shake to match the 10% extra calories you need.
You can also make your own mass gainer shake. All you need to do is blend your protein powder with oats and a dollop of your favorite nut butter, adjusting the quantities until you get the calories and ratios you need. Otherwise a good quality mass gainer shake is the more convenient option.
Another way to add in these extra calories are to track and add a little extra food throughout the day. If you’re taking this option, then again, these extra calories should be coming from quality sources of protein, fats and carbs. Not in the form of the cinnamon-sugar doughnut that went alongside your mid-morning caramel latte because its “bulking season”.
How much mass can I gain?
Scheduling a check-in with yourself each week is a good idea while you’re on a mass gaining phase. You should always do these at the same time of day and under the same conditions (food intake, lighting, poop status etc.).
Using photos to take snaps of your body from various angles is a good idea. You can look back on them as you're progressing to ensure you’ve not been getting too soft around the edges. And don’t worry, you don’t need to be sharing your half-naked pictures on social media if you don’t want to.
Scales can also be useful. Weighing scales don’t tell the full story of your physique transformation, but a weekly weight check-in will ensure you’re gaining weight at the right rate. Too little and you’ll need to add more than the current extra 10% calories (try 15-20%), while too much will likely mean you’re gaining more fat than you’d eventually like. Here are some realistic mass gain targets to aim for.
Muscle Gain with Minimal Fat Gain (men):
0.2 - 0.5 kg (0.5 - 1 lb) per month if you’re close to your genetic potential
0.5 - 1.4 kg (1 - 3 lb) per month if you’re an intermediate with room to develop
1.4 - 1.8 kg (3 - 4 lb) per month if you’ve less than 2 years of consistent training
1.8 - 2.5 kg (4-5.5 lb) per month if you’re a complete newbie
Note: The chart above does not include phases of reverse-dieting, rebounding, initial water loss/gain with low carb dieting, or use of PED’s.
To gain muscle mass without the unwanted fat then you need to be adding quality calories to your diet. Knowing your maintenance calories will allow you to add just the right amount on top, and make adjustments each week depending on how your body responds. In part-2 I’ll be covering macronutrient (protein, fat and carbohydrate) goals and timing to get even better results. Part-3 and part-4 will cover the training and exercise components to a successful mass gaining phase.